The Appetence for Alterity
Exoticism is — rightly — something of a dirty word. It is the commodification of the Other, appropriating the thoughts or clothing or music or food or religion of an unfamiliar culture for the charm of the unfamiliar. The example that always comes to mind for me is Lamont Cranston — The Shadow — who learned the power to cloud men’s minds “while traveling in East Asia.”
— Daniel Abraham, A Defence of Exoticism
It’s the other day in the SF Café. I’m sipping a coffee, checking emails, browsing blogs, when I notice, over at his booth, writer Daniel Abraham musing on exoticism. As he takes pains to note, as we can see in the quote above, the stigma of colonialism attaching to that term is not to be dismissed. Still, he admits, he can’t wholly dismiss the appetence for alterity either. It’s less a defence he offers, I’d say, than it’s a consideration of an ambiguous stance that allows for value in the romance with the Other. He’s not denying the toxic outcomes, but suggesting that these aren’t the aim of our attraction, that there’s an impulse here that isn’t pathological for all its ultimate effects.
The appetence for alterity…
The desire for Diversity Victor Segalen called it in his posthumous, fragmentary Essai sur l’exotisme. I prefer my terms, for the sense of affinity versus lust, deviance versus variety. And I’m not one for the pomp of concepts rendered as proper nouns, unless in a metaphor of domain — the ghetto of Genre, the city of Writing. But what Segalen’s suggesting is precisely what Abraham is reaching for — a flensing of what he sees as false exoticism. Writing on the cusp of modernity, Segalen seeks to shred the colonialist muscle and fat, strip back the notion to its skeleton and reconstitute the term:
Clear the field first of all. Throw overboard everything misused or rancid contained in the word exoticism. Strip it of all its cheap finery: palm tree and camel; tropical helmet; black skins and yellow sun; and, at the same time, get rid of all those who used it with an inane loquaciousness.
To Segalen this is not exoticism at all but a fetishistic travesty of it — a colonial exoticism. He seeks to reclaim exoticism in itself as something that may not be territorial, to remake it as not just spatial — focused on elsewheres — but as temporal — focused on elsewhens — seeking alterity in history as well as geography. In the future too. He even speaks of sexual exoticism — not a matter of perversion but in a sense of alterity between genders.
Dodgy as he is when it actually comes to the latter, I’ve got sympathy with his aims in theory, and with the explorative methodology that follows from them. Like Segalen’s project then, this’ll be an essay in the classic sense — not an articulation of a stance, but a foray, a sortie into the territory that begins by accepting that a stance is only a pause in the process, action suspended temporarily to become attitude. The appetence for alterity entails an impulse toward such sorties; the shifting of stance is part of what is sought.
The appetence for alterity…
Beyond the doors of the SF Café, beyond the ghetto of Genre, the city of Writing, beyond even the nation of Art, is a whole world of Experience. Born into our little locales, only a fraction of that world is familiar to us, most of the rest entirely foreign. Most, I say. Our nation of Art sits on the continent of Imagination, where the manufacturing of ersatz experience is the major industry. So we end up facing not just the familiar and the foreign, but also a fakery which may be either, neither, both or all of the above.
These are what we’re dealing with in exoticism then — the familiar, the foreign and the fake.
“Imaginary Exoticism: Wells, for example. His mechanism: the dissociation of ideas, and their subsequent reassociation with a peculiar state of mind. Examine the question of ‘the Future.'”
— Victor Segalen, Essai sur l’exotisme
There’s a particularly bold form of the fake that’s of import here, what I call the quirk — the core component of strange fiction, born in breaches of narrative modality. The import of a narrative, the judgement of meaning we make on it, isn’t flat pseudo-fact, as if we were transcribing a deposition with no concern over the content. Rather there’s a constant tension between the narrative and our stance to it: did this happen? could this happen? should this happen? would we have this have happen? To grasp the different modalities that might play in a narrative, we only need to look to the modal auxiliary verbs that set the mood of a sentence: will; is; did; can; could; shall; should; might; may; must. There are four broad types of judgement there.
There are four flavours of narrative modality then, four flavours of quirk:
- epistemic — factuality;
- alethic — possibility;
- deontic — duty;
- boulomaic — desire.
In practice that means there’s reportage, which has an epistemic modality of “did happen” (or at least is meant to.) And there’s fiction, which has an epistemic modality of “did not happen,” but which is enjoyed under the pretence of a modality of “did happen” — in a suspension-of-disbelief.
And in practice, fiction functions on an alethic modality of “could (have) happen(ed)”… until along come those crazy (alethic) quirks that we strange fiction writers throw into the narrative to create a peachy keen credibility warp. We can schematise these, carving out our sense of possibility into four domains according to the levels of (im)possibility, saying these events are on record, these tekhne work, these relationships can be assumed to be universal, these principles must hold in any universe simply for it to cohere as a universe.
There are four philosophical flavours of impossibility then, four flavours of alethic quirk:
- historical — erratum, breaching known history;
- technical — novum, breaching known science;
- physical — chimera, breaching the laws of nature;
- logical — sutura, breaching the strictures of logic.
This is alterity of the most profound form, deviance from the normative so radical it warps our sense of credibility. The strange is exotic by definition. It’s foreign to our very experience. It’s necessarily fake. It is of course also a powerful tool for figuratively tackling the familiar, one which can create a work as true as any figuration.
Or it can lie. It can, for example, inject the chimera of a strange mental faculty — the power to cloud men’s minds, learned while traveling through East Asia. The physical impossibility of this is not the lie that matters here, mind; this is just a fancy that some will relish and others revile, no more of a lie than any other chimera. It’s the “traveling through East Asia” part we want to be wary of.
Beyond the Known World
“I know and do not hide it: this book will disappoint most readers. Despite its already somewhat compromised title, it will not have much about the tropics or palm trees, cocunt trees, Asian palm trees, or guava trees, unknown fruits and flowers; nor about monkeys with human faces, and Negros who act like monkeys…”
— Victor Segalen, Essai sur l’exotisme
That schema of possibility is a product of the Enlightenment though, the grand enterprise which rationalised Western culture’s model of How the World Works. To parse quirks in this way is to assume notions of history, science, nature and logic that are coherent and comprehensive enough for us to sense a breach with that distinct flavour. In pre-Enlightenment literature, a looser schema seems required.
While we do find the blatant chimera of the magical and miraculous breaching the laws of nature — and even if we are being asked to believe the narrative of a man walking upon water as the gospel truth, this implicitly asserts the laws of nature in the miracle of the breach — when it comes to the lower levels of practical possibilities, what we find tends to take other shapes than the erratum and novum. There’s no need for the erratum and novum perhaps, both history and science as yet unsystematised. But there is a distinctly analogous approach.
There’s a strain of strange fiction that eschews the chimera as just too damn incredible. The frisson of the strange is still required, but in an alethic quirk that can be rendered credible. This isn’t difficult though; one simply selects a jumping-off point within those domains of knowledge, and a trajectory that takes one beyond the known, and then makes the jump. The trajectory may be offered as argument, but the quirk may well be rendered credible simply by being set in the alterior context of an elsewhen — by moving the action from the here and now, sideways (and possibly back) to a parallel world, or ahead to a future world. What could not have happened now, could have happened elsewhen (as opposed to the chimera, which could not happen ever.)
In pre-Enlightenment times, we find a similar strategy which simply jumps way backward from the here and now rather than sideways or ahead. In gives us the arcanum, quirk of legend and lore, that which would have been possible, so the conceit goes, in the epoch of those ancients whose wisdom is long since lost, in the elsewhen of a past long-buried in the ruins of immolated history. The arcanum is still with us, in truth, in every ancient alien artifact. Or in ancient secrets passed down across the centuries, known only to initiates of mystic orders. In Tibet, say.
But such radical leaps through time were not necessary in an era when one could simply move the action not elsewhen but elsewhere, beyond the limits of the known world. Herodotus, Marco Polo and their ilk could pass off the most outlandish fancy as reportage even, it seems — Anthropophagi, Prester John. The whole idiom of the traveler’s tale emerges out of such histories and travelogues, burgeons in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travel’s and Voltaire’s Candide, in utopias and picaresques; but scouring away these evolutions of form, what we can see here is a form of alethic quirk going right back to the scorpion men Gilgamesh encounters at the edge of the known world. Sometimes in this literature we meet chimera, sometimes we meet arcana, but everywhere we find ourselves facing exotica — the alethic quirk of something that could not happen here, something we can however imagine happening elsewhere, happening somewhere… foreign.
Beyond the known world, the known rules may not apply, after all.
When the exotica are projected to a truly unknown territory we have no dealings with, a land we can have no dealings with because it’s as invented as a future or a parallel world, this strategy is no more or less reckless than any of its modern analogues. Though it deals with exotica, in fact, in so far as that’s just the flavour of quirk in use, to call this type of fiction exoticism is to say that all strange fiction is such, emptying the term of all utility. But where we find this strategy persisting even as the blank spaces on the maps are filled in, where we begin treating colonised lands as elsewheres of alethic potential, then we have the exoticism Segalen seeks to redeem.
Seduced by the potency of the quirks, the Romanticist may question if it even needs to be redeemed. Isn’t this the alterity you’re looking for? Isn’t this exoticism just a relish of the difference of the foreign, the exotica used to empower the rendering, to conjure the true wonder of the foreign figuratively?
No, I say. No, sadly it’s not.
Clearing the Field
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.”
— Jim Jarmusch
To get at the problem of colonial exoticism though, like Segalen we need to clear the field a little. That quote from Abraham injects a misleading notion. In an example like The Shadow learning his powers in East Asia, we’re not talking looted artifacts like the Elgin Marbles, for a start, any more than Jarmusch is urging the theft of actual bridges. There’s the inspirational avidity Jarmusch is talking of and there’s the wholesale pillaging of material resources: the rivers of culture wrought in stone, bronze, iron, whatever, that keep a community fecund, diverted to the museums of colonial powers; a murderous rapacity leaving the colonised domain arid.
That’s not the issue here.
And if that might be abstracted to a notion of “illegitimately adopting the cultural practices of other communities,” that’s still not the issue; rather it’s how those cultural practices are being rendered. What we’re dealing with is not appropriation but representation. This is to say, it’s not lifestyle theft, but it may well be lifestyle slander.
Let’s break it down:
- 1.1. We’re not dealing with acculturation — the learning of lifestyle across two communities. If the author renders a character, Lamont Cranston, as learning the “secrets of the Mystic Orient,” this isn’t the same as the author learning the art of bonsai, adopting a cultural feature of an alterior community, taking part of another community’s lifestyle as part of their own.
- 1.2 We’re not dealing with the illegitimate acculturation that would constitute lifestyle theft, posited on the notion that a community has a mandate to authorise acculturation. If the author is not Lamont Cranston being taught “the secrets of the Mystic Orient,” they’re certainly not Lamont Cranston pilfering those secrets from the inscrutable Mystic Oriental the tulku who is their true guardian.
- 2.1. We’re not dealing with transculturation — the large-scale effects of lifestyle sharing as it scales up from individual acts of acculturation to the fusion and fission of cultures as a whole. If generations of authors render Lamont Cranston as learning the “secrets of the Mystic Orient,” this is not the same as generations of African-Americans and Euro-Americans undergoing individual acculturation with respect to musical idioms — blues and folk — until you end up with, on a large-scale, the transculturation evidenced in rock-and-roll. It’s not that generations of Lamont Cranstons and tulkus have created a Secret Order that is its own community, with both Occident and Orient reconfigured by this evolution.
- 2.2. We’re not dealing with illegitimate transculturation — which can only be posited as illegitimate in and of itself on the notion that a community’s mandate to prohibit acculturation is absolute, that it’s authorised to reject transculturation outright as lifestyle miscegenation. It’s not that the Mystic Orient lives by an unquestionable tradition of cultural purity, which the Secret Order stands in flagrant breach of with its half-breed lifestyle.
I’ll say as an aside that those notions of lifestyle theft and lifestyle miscegenation don’t fly with me. To judge acculturation and transculturation for legitimacy like this assumes a community’s claim of copyright on lifestyle itself, in perpetuity. It’s to say the Scots of forever own the poetry of Burns, have every right — “A Man’s a Man For a’ That” notwithstanding — to polder it in ritual as exclusively Scottish culture, forbid an illegitimate Burns Night held by the Mugwumps of New Sodom two centuries from now. I’m with Jarmusch if we’re applying the idea of theft here.
But that is only an aside; we’re dealing with a bonsai this author doesn’t have, acculturation that hasn’t taken place. The Shadow a work of fiction, there are no “secrets of the Mystic Orient” being learned.
The Monstrum of Colonialism
“Let us not flatter ourselves for assimilating the customs, races, nations and others who differ from us. On the contrary, let us rejoice in our inability ever to do so, for we thus retain the eternal pleasure of sensing Diversity.”
— Victor Segalen, Essai sur l’exotisme
We are also not dealing then with the deculturation that results from transculturation in a colonialist power dynamic — where the assimilation of the colonised tends to erasure of alterity, may indeed be coerced to that end, an active extermination of lifestyle. The generations of authors are not a host of Lamont Cranstons learning the “secrets of the Mystic Orient” and shrewdly offering the tulkus a steady diet of Coca-Cola and Big Macs in return, weaning them to American lifestyles, gradually erasing alterity until there are no Asian tulkus, just a Secret Order run by Lamont Cranstons.
Again as an aside: this assimilation is the real issue of transculturation, I hazard, obfuscated when we parse the problem as lifestyle theft — not the illegitimacy of exchange(s) but the tendency to erasure, the way a colonialist power dynamic finds in transculturation another mechanism by which to subjugate. In part, I’m saying it’s not lifestyle theft we’re dealing with here because it never is, not really — it’s lifestyle genocide. Again, this is only an aside though. That’s not what’s going on when we are thrilled by the notion of Lamont Cranston learning “the secrets of the Mystic Orient.” There is no acculturation across the borders, no learning of lifestyle from the alterior.
What we have instead is, to take the 1994 movie version of Abraham’s example, The Shadow: a story that begins with the image of an opium field in Tibet; a story in which Cranston enters as the monstrum of a criminal warlord; ensconced in the opulence of an expropriated temple, surrounded by minions, bedecked in silks, fingernails grown sharp, he is Ying Ko, the very epitome of the exoticist Segalen rejects; he is the very epitome of the colonialist, seizing power from indigenes with murder, notorious as the Butcher of Lhasa; he is a “beast” inside.
The monstrum is another quirk, I should add, one of negative boulomaic modality — i.e. of profound antipathy. The monstrum is that which “must not happen,” or when you’re dealing with entities rather than events, which “must not be.”
It might almost sound like a critique of colonialism then… except: Cranston is the very image of the civilised white man “gone native”; he’s kidnapped by the tulku, cliché of the Mystic Oriental in service to the white hero; the first Asian he encounters on return to America, Roy, is a comic coward who will also serve him, is given no choice; that good Asian’s home-life is pure Americana, complete assimilation; the villain is Genghis Khan’s descendent, a madman in awe of Ying Ko, his white role model; and in a dream of the evil that lurks within, Cranston will tear the skin from his face to reveal the monstrum of this “barbarian” prowling in his own heart, Shiwan Khan.
Any critique collapsing into indulgence, The Shadow’s exoticism becomes an exercise in neurosis, shameful and shameless at the same time, rendering the monstrum of colonialism in all its callous avarice, but simultaneously absolving the familiar with its rendering of the foreign, projecting the bestiality, the barbarism, into the alterior. Call it an expiation narrative; it’s one that seeks to purge sin with fakery.
The temple and the tulku, the sidekick and the savage — it’s not so much that the culture of a community is being, as Abraham puts it, “appropriated, reinterpreted, misinterpreted.” Interpretation is false because it’s not the foreign being interpreted at all, but the fake — a fake which misrepresents not just the culture but the community. To paint a false picture of a people’s lifestyle is to paint a false picture of the people anyway, but here it’s not even that indirect. The “cheap finery” Segalen scorns goes hand-in-hand with clichés of character that are, right down to the cosy reassurances they offer — that the colonised is the monstrum, that it can be assimilated — utterly familiar.
The Fucking-Over of the Foreign
“For there is perhaps another shock, from the traveler to the object of his gaze, which rebounds and makes what he sees vibrate.”
— Victor Segalen, Essai sur l’exotisme
A digression: a notion: the stance.
We each have our own unique set of attitudes-to-objects — stances — as emotional as they are intellectual — which we can and will bring to bear in dealing with those objects. A stance doesn’t just define how we engage with an object; it’s the disposition we assume in the process of engaging, the internal aspect of engagement.
As a community we share stances to objects; there are stances conventional and unconventional; we acquire our stances from our community in the first instance. In so far as our individual lifestyle, our community’s culture, can be considered less in terms of artifacts than in terms of our attitude to them, the process of enculturation — the learning of lifestyle from one’s own community — which comes long before any acculturation across the borders, can be considered no more and no less than the acquisition of stance(s).
That’s what matters here. The story of The Shadow’s origin isn’t a doorway opened into that East Asian culture, through which the Westerner steps to pilfer its arcane secrets. The Westerner can’t return with snaffled secrets that don’t exist, that doorway opening only into a simulation of “the Mystic Orient” run on the distributed network of the Westerner’s own culture, a semiotic gamespace in their imaginative media. These snaffled secrets that don’t exist are not actual beliefs adopted but misunderstood, akin to actual cuisine or clothing copied cheaply for a shallow mummery. These aren’t the foreign but the fake, not spoilings of East Asia but spewings of the West that render East Asia; they are not thefts but the lies about the victim that come before, during and after such thefts, to justify them… and justify more besides.
They are renderings from which we learn stances.
I set appropriation aside then, and place representation in the frame here, because the former is only a symptom. Where we’re larcenous in our dealings with the foreign, this is just part of a greater aggression born of the fakery. Those deep falsehoods, yes, cast fraud as fair trade, forgery as innovative industry, but this is hardly the core concern if they cast every fucking-over of the foreign as fair play. Again: expiation narratives.
To render a subject is always already to render it subject. That is to say, I use the term render here precisely for its double meaning: to depict an object, X, in a medium, or to set an object, X, in a state; to render East Asia in cinema, or to render East Asia obscure, obfuscated. All renderings act indirectly upon the object they render, is my point, impacting the audience’s stance; to affect how the audience will engage with East Asia is to act upon East Asia via the audience… and of course upon people of or from East Asia.
The artist is not Lamont Cranston, learning his skills from a tulku. He is already The Shadow, clouding the audience’s minds with a rendering of X that sets it in Y state, makes them engage with it — even if only here and now, for the duration of pretence — as Y.
— You are not engaging with East Asia, whispers The Shadow. Look again, see instead the Mystic Orient. See the Mystic Orientals.
A Stance of Deep Suspicion
“Others, pseudo-Exots, (the Lotis, tourists, had an effect that was no less disastrous. I call them the Panderers of the Sensation of Diversity.”
— Victor Segalen, Essai sur l’exotisme
The key questions with exoticism are of the duration of the pretence, and of how positive any stance toward a fakery of the foreign can be. If an author renders East Asia (as) the Mystic Orient, to what degree does the stance the audience takes to the Mystic Orient during the game of narrative:
- persist in the stance they take to East Asia in reality?
- actually constitute a hostile stance toward the real East Asia?
No rendering comes without stance. The author cannot help but write a stance into a rendering (whether it’s their own or a quirk of some clichéd trope). The audience may well reject that stance where it palpably conflicts with their own, but ultimately they’re born into the culture of their community, the system of all those individual stance-sets in collision and collusion, articulated all around them, not least in art. It’s folly to imagine renderings not integral to that process of enculturation. We’ve all heard of propaganda, advertising, scripture, right?
If we replace “Mystic Orient” with “Yellow Peril,” it should be obvious how that fakery can impact the audience’s stance by rendering X a very particular type of Y. Not Charlie Chan, but Fu Manchu. Not the Magic Negro, but Mandingo. With just one word — “swarthy,” say — it’s piss-easy to write a stance into the thrilling pulp fiction read by the kiddies of your culture, a stance of deep suspicion towards dark skin; do so and that prejudicial stance may well be part of the lifestyle the next generation learns from their own community, part of their enculturation.
Thrilling pulp fiction is prone to offering up the cheapest and easiest villainy, so it’s rife with such stances, the “degenerate race” as a perennial trope, for example: the Persians in 300; the natives of Skull Island in King Kong; the cannibal Caribs of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. These modern examples all have clear roots in the pulp era of Lovecraft, Burroughs and Howard, but it’s a tradition we might trace back to the original treatment of Xerxes’s Persians by the Greeks contemporary with them…
Assuming one allows that “decadent” is the watchword there rather than “degenerate,” that is. Prior to Gobineau, I’m not sure we have the meta-narrative of devolution in that way; rather the Mandingos and Manchus of Western literature evidence a nasty-neat double-bind. Their community is more materially cultured? Why then those sophisticates are “decadent.” Their community is less materially cultured? Why then those savages are “depraved.” The anti-Semitism typified by The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is perhaps the nadir of this tradition, with its oxymoronic stance in which Jews are both decadent sophisticates and depraved savages. Awesome.
The answer to that first question, then, should give us a sense of the peril in the exoticism Segalen seeks to overthrow. When I say “a stance of deep suspicion” this is understatement, in truth. It’s an attitude that abhors alterity, abjures it, an attitude that abjects — seeks to cast out. The monstrum is not just to be held in antipathy. That it must not be functions not just as judgement but as imperative, to make it so, to expiate, to expunge.
The expiation narrative that surrenders to this imperative becomes an extermination narrative.
Such a grave problem may invite a (hardly unreasonable) defensive stance here, an answer to the second question which casts all fascination with the fakery of the foreign as ultimately hostile to the foreign itself, casts exoticism as an aspect of abjection. Alternatively, it may point us to a more structural understanding of what exactly we must strip from exoticism if we wish to push Segalen’s project to fruition. That Khan in The Shadow becomes the beast within Cranston, that the stance to this fakery of the foreign is one of abjection, may be precisely what we need to understand to grasp that this exoticism is not an appetence for alterity at all. If anything, the expiation narrative is a fascination/revulsion with the familiar, the fakery of the foreign a way to deny that it is familiar.
A Dark Forest of Fenceposts
“It may be the freedom is one of the characteristics of the Exot, that is, being free with regard to the object that is felt or described, at least at that final phase when the Exot has moved away from the object. The Lotis are, quite the contrary, mystically drunk with and unconscious of their object. They confuse it with themselves and passionately intermingle with it, ‘drunk with their god!'”
— Victor Segalen, Essai sur l’exotisme
Where it comes to communities and their cultures, the alterity is real. The foreign is other by definition, which means it’s also Other in our psyche and society. Which is to say, foreign individuals are evermade benchmarks that define a familiar group’s identity by negation. That sweeping circle of the upper-case O in Other inscribes a boundary between Us and Them, delimits Us with a fencepost pounded into the soil every time we apply that notion. Us is what sits inside that circle. Them is what sits outside, a dark forest of fenceposts beyond the campfire’s light. Pointing at Them and saying, “not Us,” becomes a stance of community solidarity, faced out at that forest, what we are set as inverse of the particular alterities we stand against.
But the act of definition works both ways. Identity is, of course, already defined, whether in the Harlequinades of complexes and archetypes that Freud and Jung outlined, or a more complex masque their models only loosely fit. As a symbol graved into fantasies and fictions, it’s hard to deny the reality of one rather pertinent figura of the undermind — the Shadow, not as pulp hero but as the dreaded monstrum of urges born in the very action of ego that casts those urges as transgression.
Here’s the thing: Moral dicta engender a dread of transgression, a dread of even the desire to transgress, but in doing so they invite fleeting, horrifying notions of our potential impulses. We need not even truly wish to do the forbidden for the monstrum to emerge; all it takes is that for a moment our chaotic libido… ejects into our mind the shape of that desire, as in some Tourette’s Syndrome of the subconscious, precisely because it is what’s inappropriate in that context, what we do not wish our desire to be. And in that moment we glean Cranston’s beast within; in that moment the monstrum is born to be denied, the part of Us already defined as not-Us, as Other. The aptly-named character of The Shadow is an exercise in the figuration of that monstrum. Who knows what evil lurks within the hearts of men? The Shadow knows. Of course he does; he is that evil.
In our stance set against that dark forest of fenceposts, pointing out at Them and saying, “not Us,” we’re always already projecting this evermade Other onto the foreign. In truth, it’s the familiar we now have our backs to, that which we deny, this monstrum dancing round the fire as we gaze out, see the shadows it casts past us. But seeing the shadows cast on the fenceposts offers us an absolution if we just… give it the face of Khan. Look! See? It is not-Us. It is Them. This xenophobic stance to the foreign is not just prejudice; as it seeks to cast out the internal Other by projecting it onto the foreign, it becomes what Julia Kristeva terms abjection — a profound irrational revulsion at that which was once part of us and which, on some level, still is. The key insight in Kristeva’s notion is that our hatred of the Other might be, at heart, in proportion to the degree to which we liminally discern our own denial’s fakery, must hold doubt at bay with rabid dogs of unreason.
This is what David Lynch was dealing with in Twin Peaks, what Arthur Miller was dealing with in The Crucible, the shadows cast upon that forest of fenceposts. Think of the entry to the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks. Think of the witches’ Sabbaths in The Crucible. Both Lynch and Miller are pointing to the Puritan projection of the Other, the Shadow, onto the American wilderness, just as their European forebears, in their folklore, projected it onto their own wildwoods of big bad wolves. Lynch is of particular interest actually; an auteur of the uncanny, (the familiar-yet-foreign,) he constantly inverts the projection, twisting our stance to face the monstra as within community and individual Self. Though his quirk of choice is the boldest fakery a strange fiction writer can use — the sutura, breaching logic itself, turning story to oneiric collage — compared to the fairytales of forests, the result is more honest because of this, for all its artifice.
That scene in The Shadow, where Cranston dreams of ripping the skin off his face to find Khan underneath? If Cranston’s dream had been showing him the truth, it would have had Khan ripping off his face to show that of Cranston in the guise of Ying Ko.
A True Origin of the Shadow
“While experiencing China profoundly, I have never had the desire to be Chinese. While I have felt the force of the Vedic dawn, I have never really regretted not being born three thousand years earlier and a herdsman. Take off from the real, from what is, from what one is. Homeland. Epoch.”
— Victor Segalen, Essai sur l’exotisme
The truth is, the radio serial simply added “the power to cloud men’s minds” as an expedient device to keep the action moving — no need for tedious explanations of where he was hiding, how he could come upon the villains out of nowhere. As I understand, the original backstory was just handwaving, that he learned this art “while traveling through East Asia.” We might imagine then another movie, a true origin of The Shadow, in which it is East Asia we see at the start, an opium field in Tibet perhaps, but in the real Tibet.
There is no Ying Ko, only Cranston the colonial exoticist, the Westerner dressed in silks, his own mind the first he learns to cloud, shrouding reality in an illusion of the Mystic Orient. He is a tourist perhaps, a travel writer of the sort Segalen calls pseudo-Exots precisely for their shrouding of reality. There is no Ying Ko, only a guilty dream of the crimelord excesses Cranston must not desire, atrocities which as a colonial exoticist he is party to; the figment of Ying Ko is the monstrum Cranston cannot face — the fact he’s facilitating the very real Butchers of Lhasa with every rendering of East Asia as Mystic Orient.
There is no Mystic Oriental, only Cranston’s stance which casts a tulku in some real-word temple as Mystic Oriental, a stance which is born from the projection of “decadence” onto the foreign, which simply flips the valuation so this becomes an ethereal “sophistication.” It’s a parallel to the inversion by which the Mandingo becomes the Magic Negro, “depravity” becoming earthy “savagery.” In both, it is just that Romanticism has revalued the characteristics of Shadow, of Other, as mystical wisdom rather than monstrous vice, a quality to revere not revile. The monstra have been inverted to numina — wondrous in their not-Us wisdom, that which should be.
Such figurae speak of a recognition of the Shadow — literally a re-cognition: becoming aware of that internal Other again; rethinking one’s stance to it. In the true origin of The Shadow, where Cranston the colonial exoticist dreams the tulku a Mystic Oriental, he is glimpsing the golden glow of firelight upon a fencepost, changing his stance. In the true origin of The Shadow, Cranston learns nothing from the foreign, is only prompted by his own fakery of it to turn and see the point and power of that familiar internal Other: a stance that embraces the Shadow is one that dances with it, deals with it; in place of the expiation required by denial, by the dread of desire itself, there is resolution as that libidinous undermind lets us lead, in exchange for the capacity to overthrow moral dicta that are fucked-up.
In the true origin of The Shadow, Cranston the colonial exoticist would only dream a tulku leading him to a mirror, showing him the face of Ying Ko as the Shadow denied, that face transforming under the very action of the gaze to the Shadow accepted — a visage half-hidden in scarf and slouch hat because it is the potential to be anyone. The piercing eyes and beak nose, the frisson of monstrum to the hero himself — the pulp icon Cranston becomes carries a deep truth in its bare essentials. To dance and deal with the Shadow is an alliance of Self and Other incompatible with the stance of community solidarity that denies the Shadow as not-Us. The very naming of Cranston’s altar ego speaks to the fact that any resolution with the Shadow can only be union with it, alienating I from Us. The Self joins the Other in its outcast status, becomes a creature of darkness even as hero.
There’s a profound capacity in that, where expiation narrative is transformed to resolution narrative. The very exoticism that casts the tulku as Mystic Oriential should now empower our Cranston to cease the projection of Other onto the foreign. Turned inward to a union with the monstrum dancing round the campfire, to become The Shadow, our Cranston may now look out to that dark forest of fenceposts with a whole new stance, seeing where it is his own shadow being cast upon the reality, filtering that out, seeing the foreign for what it is. He may find a stance to the foreign that is not a stance to the Other but simply to… the actual alterity. Rather than learn to cloud men’s minds, he might learn to clear his own.
This is where the true appetence for alterity almost begins then, in the desire to become alterior.
Almost, I stress.
To Work Through This Abjection
“The Inhuman: its real name is the Other. It thus becomes not a god, but an action inherent in thought… To imagine as a function of the adverse.”
— Victor Segalen, Essai sur l’exotisme
To admit of the potential to work through one’s stance(s) thus is not to assume success. The very fact we must construct this true origin of The Shadow reminds us that the movie does not. The alliance of Self and Other is incomplete here, the union a halfway compromise in which dread still casts the (psychological) Shadow as a distinct beast within — Ying Ko, the Butcher of Lhasa — in which denial persists. And so the projection outward persists, the monstrum displaced into the figure of Khan, the barbarian. The stance to the foreign remains a stance to the Other.
Khan’s entry into the narrative is most significant here. Cranston sits in a leather armchair, glass of brandy in his hand, before an open fire — the Western plutocrat par excellence. He dozes off into a nightmare of flames billowing out from the hearth, forming a face — something’s coming, he says. Cut to the New York Museum of Natural History and the arrival of a solid silver sarcophagus, shipped from Tibet, an inscription in Latin (of all languages) revealing it to be that of Genghis Khan. Soon strange noises from within will be drawing a disconcerted security guard to it, gun in hand. Soon its latches will be rattling, clattering open and shut, the guard in a flap as to how to deal. Soon it will be bursting open, Shiwan Khan emerging, the monstrum who will make that security guard his first victim.
This is the return of the repressed, as blatant as might be, collective guilt tearing the veil between conscious and unconscious, rendering symbols of the crime itself a portal out of which the demon erupts — not as an avenger, of course, but as a cipher of our sin given the victim’s shape in a neurotic shifting of blame. The movie might have set Cranston against a real Ying Ko, the Othered Self (The Shadow) against its actual antithesis, the Other as Un-Self (Ying Ko). But, no, sadly if this Shadow knows what evil lurks within the hearts of men, it’s rather in denial of which men’s hearts we’re really dealing with.
And even a successful resolution narrative would bear scrutiny for the impact of such exoticism upon the foreign. Even if the narrative finds, in the alliance of Self and Other, a means to resolve our abjecting stance to the foreign as Other, to reconfigure that as an honest stance to the foreign as alterior, we’re dealing with exoticism as a process that will likely reach that stance via the numina of Mystic Orientals and suchlike. Which is to say, if abjection must be worked through to get to the point where we can see the foreign as it is, narratives which are engaged in working it through will still be employing fakeries of the foreign. Stances we learn to the foreign will still be stances to the roles they’re made to play in personal psychodramas, and just because that role isn’t monstrum anymore, that doesn’t make it all peachy. Stereotypes, clichés, the figurae of Mystic Orientals may well be more insidious; by revering rather than reviling, these fakeries present themselves as positive, but to fetishise is still to dehumanise.
And it is not just the foreign who are affected, but also all those who should and would be familiar were it not that they share markers of the foreign. In a stance of abjection which sets the foreign as Other, gazing out at that dark forest of fenceposts, we see, in our peripheral vision, members of our own community who have some marker of alterity — skin colour, say — that they share with Them. If we are defining personal and community Self in opposition to a foreign as Other, with those markers of alterity as signifiers of Otherness, this will lead to denial of familiarity to members of our community bearing those markers.
We glimpse something in the corner of our vision, to left or right. Is that a fencepost? Is that the Other encroaching on our campfire? We must step back, consolidate the defence! And so those who are familiar but alterior by dint of some marker signifying “foreign” are left in a wider circle as the community closes ranks to set them there, the shadows of the Un-Self being projected onto them too. So, even in those narratives that seek to work through this abjection, we find not just the foreign as Other but the familiar as Other too. That Mystic Oriental can as easily be an Asian-American as a tulku of Tibet. The nearest we get to a real character may well be in stereotypes such as the comic coward, where the hostile stance to the abject is dropped as they are blatantly rendered weaker and submissive, passively compliant or actively loyal. As with Roy in The Shadow, as with reality, even to get that level of acceptance may require an eschewal of as many markers of alterity as can be forsaken, a flensing of distinct lifestyle — dutiful assimilation.
The Queering of the Self
“Only those with a strong individuality can fully appreciate the wonderful sensation of feeling both what they are and what they are not.”
— Victor Segalen, Essai sur l’exotisme
Still, maybe that alliance of Self and Other does offer a path to an exoticism that begins on the far side of the resolution narrative, in a queering of the Self that overthrows the relationship between foreign and familiar, allows us to see alterity for the first time — not a fakery of the foreign but the foreign as it is — by situating alterity first and foremost within oneself.
What do I mean by a queering of the Self? Not a sexual queering obviously. Rather I would reconstruct the notion of the queer as encompassing all forms of alterity that render a familiar individual Other in relation to the community Self. Racism, homophobia, ableism, misogyny and so on are not disjunct issues; these are all forms of abjection of the queer as constructed in terms of race, sexual orientation, ability, gender, etc., all aimed at the definition of an Us, a (normative) community Self that is evermade white, straight, able-bodied, male, etc.. What we are dealing with in all these instances is a xenophobia that needs no foreign object, bootstrapping it into existence by defining the familiar as such. The queer is the familiar rendered foreign.
(Note 1: different markers map to different meanings, different stances to the different abject groups, so this is not to collapse these issues, only to collate them.)
(Note 2: that women are queer in this model regardless of the basic reality of a typically bi-gendered species only speaks to the artifice of normativity, how little it has to do with what is prevalent or even with what is, in normativity’s beloved rhetoric, “natural.”)
That the alterity may take any form, that the familiar is being rendered foreign — this is why we can speak not just of the queer as object but of queering as action. And in understanding what this consists of at root — the distinction of individuals from the community Self, their definition as Other in relation to that Us — we can set this as distinct from the projection of Shadow: the queer need not be abject.
There are the queer who are rendered such by abjection, those left standing on the margins as the community closes ranks, stranded between familiar and foreign, cast as both and neither, all too aware of the stances of deep suspicion that now include them. But there are also the queer who have shifted stance, broken from the circle to turn inward, face the Shadow — face all the dancers round the campfire who cast their shadows out upon the foreign.
I could throw in a little Jung, but we don’t really need his grand, dry terms here — differentiation; integration: individuation — just one word: resolution. All senses apply: as a blur resolves into imagery, as tensions are resolved into stability, as the resolve of agency emerges, as one becomes an agent, resolute — this is the resolution I mean, by which the familiar queer themselves simply by recognising the part of Us denied as not-Us. The alienation of I from Us entailed in that act is as much a definition of identity by negation as that which defines Us in terms of Them.
This alienation is not a stance of rebellion, I add. One might imagine that individualist a circle of one around their own firebrand, abjuring their familiar community as foreign, recasting it as the Other that defines their Self, but this is a Romantic dream of agency as grandiose heroics — a hubris I scent in Segalen’s notion of the exote, to be honest, where he lauds the exote’s strength of character. This is not what it is to be queer. Rather one must imagine a continued recognition of the familiar as familiar that sets the self-queered as Other to their own community. In figurative terms, they have simply entered, as the familiar rendered foreign, the same borderland between campfire and forest as those of us rendered queer by abjection.
This is the foundation of Segalen’s exoticism, if that alterity can be maintained even as one engages with the actual foreign.
Toward a New Exoticism
“I would have done well to avoid such a dangerous word, such an ambiguous word. Should I forge another?… I preferred to take up the challenge and to keep what still seemed fundamentally good about this word despite its sullying; but in doing so I tried first to delouse it, and in the harshest fashion, so as to return to it, along with its former value, all the primacy of its initial flavour.”
— Victor Segalen, Essai sur l’exotisme
The root failure of the colonial exoticism that renders the term, as Segalen describes it, a “bloated and compromised word, abused, ready to explode, to burst, empty itself of everything,” is written in the stereotype of the Ugly American Tourist — who’s actually little to do with the US and everything to do with the Us. That tourist is never a foreign visitor in a community familiar to itself; they remain always the familiar (to themselves) on an excursion through a foreign community. In a weekend city break, a fortnight, the months-long sojourn of a gap year student’s latter-day Grand Tour — Varanasi, Angkor Wat and so on — the depth of immersion is irrelevant if the traveller remains, in their heart, one of Us adrift among Them. Everywhere they go, they are carrying their own fakery to cloud their own minds, whether with monstra and numina or simply with an inside-out view of the actual relationship between stranger and community.
To be an exote one must be the Other, one of Them adrift among (an) Us. If that is possible… one may well be caught up in touristic awe at the monstra and numina of a culture — a Jewish cemetery in Krakow, an Aztec temple in Mexico — but maybe we can experience these as alterities within the familiar we are foreign to rather than of the foreign. Maybe rather than taking these as bold unfamiliarities that signify just how Other the foreign is they might prime us to look for alterities in the familiar we are queer to. So Harry Harootunian, in his foreword to Segalen speaks of how by “bringing the mystery once associated with an elsewhere back to one’s own time and place, his essay prefigured the later surrealist discovery of mystery in the everyday.”
The exote relishes the moments where familiarity reminds them they are foreign. How strange it is: that I wouldn’t normally kiss a man on the cheek in greeting.; that I wouldn’t normally change my greeting with the time of day; that I would normally wear shorts in a sauna that would normally not be mixed. The alterity is not in the French, the Mexicans, the Finnish, but in me, the exote. And for the exote, where the familiar they’re foreign to recalls the familiar they’re queer to, those moments are not shocking discoveries that They are like Us — by Cock, they’re not wholly freakish! Rather the slight skewing of the reflection, the subtle difference that may be simply context, serves to render fresh the feature of the familiar we’re queer to. It is not that one sits drinking with Finns and thinks, Cock Almighty, these foreigners are as sworn to revelry as the Scots! It’s that a customary “Cheers!” ceases to be empty routine when it is voiced as “Kippis!”
That’s the appetence for alterity I’m talking of here, my take on Segalen’s project to rebuild the whole notion of exoticism. Whether it’s a realistic aim, I don’t know, but it seems, to me, an enterprise in line with the very nature of strange fiction. Even in its boldest fakery of chimera and arcana that fiction aims for deeper honesty, is not bound to lie. If any mode of fiction aims to render the familiar fresh by casting it in unfamiliar forms it is this idiom. It may be no small order to do so from a starting point in which one is oneself the Other, but I don’t think the project is wholly insane. And fuck it, if this foray towards a new exoticism is ultimately a dead-end, maybe it at least maps out some of the dangers of the old more clearly. At the end of the day, I just think that there’s more to the appeal of difference than shallow spectacle, more than a desire doomed to be fetishistic, a colonial romance with the lurid variety of the Other.
An appetence for alterity, as I say. Maybe it’s a strange way of looking at it — queer, even. But maybe that’s the point.